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Istanbul - Copyright © by Alan Grant
Simit Seller near Bebek

Istanbul, capital and centre of two great Empires also covering the Balkans, is a place where all contrasts, contradictions and promises of modern Turkey can be studied. The largest city in South East Europe, it has been experiencing rapid change in recent decades, growing from 3 million people in 1970 to some 12 million in 2003. Today it is home to 15 percent of Turkey's population, the industrial, financial and media centre of the country, and, due to its strategic location between East and West, symbolizes current debates about Turkey's European identity.

This was always a global city: just before World War I some 130,000 foreigners lived here. The Encyclopaedia Britannica described the city in 1910 as "a remarkable conglomeration of different races, various nationalities, divers languages, distinctive customs and conflicting faiths." But the loss of many of its minority populations deprived the city of a large number of its merchants and businessmen. The subsequent loss of Empire and the suspicion of the founders of the Republic towards the Ottoman past - (expressed through the construction of a new capital in the centre of Anatolia) also deprived the city of its political role. For many decades, the city became nostalgic, its culture inward-looking, its business contacts provincial. All of this appears to be changing now.

Since 2004 foreign investment has picked up sharply. The local economy (and real estate market) is booming. More money is being invested to preserve Istanbul's heritage, new museums are opening and new infrastructure (including a tunnel connecting Asia and Europe) is being built. Is the city returning to the dynamism and cosmopolitanism that marked it for so many centuries?

February 2007

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